‘Britain is still remarkably green and rural, very little of the country is developed. Lack of land to build on is one the reasons houses are so expensive. Traditional landed gentry are just as much in evidence as they were a century ago or even a millennium for that matter.’
Words taken from a BBC TV exposition of land ownership in England and Wales (r), now ten years old but no less relevant today. “It’s the old money that’s given us the most trouble – there’s no obligation on them to reveal what they own so they rarely do,” declares the presenter. Happily, several less reticent types – the late Earl of Lonsdale and the present Dukes of Northumberland and Rutland – were winkled out for interview.
This 90-minute documentary drew upon an earlier publication, Who owns Britain (Kevin Cahill, 2001), which had attempted to update the only systematic survey since the Domesday Book, the Return of Owners of Land of 1873. Cahill posited an ensuing Establishment agenda to expunge the Return from the historical record, a mission exemplified by the book English land and English landlords (1881), ‘a trumpet blast from the top of Victorian society [by] an over-educated dullard’, the Hon. George Brodrick.
As the second son of the 7th Viscount Midleton, Brodrick would never become squire of his family’s substantial acreage in Surrey and Ireland. He was, however, to become a significant de facto landowner when, in the same year that ‘English Land’ was published, he was appointed Warden of Merton College, Oxford.
The university college was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton and would be endowed with the income from parcels of tenanted land he snapped up hither and yon. In 1271 Merton acquired 385 acres in the parish of Barkby, some six miles north-east of Leicester; 745 years on, Merton College is still the owner of this property and has the original paperwork to prove it (r). Including as it does the Malt Shovel public house, Merton’s Barkby holdings might perhaps be represented as the hole in the doughnut hereabouts…
… being surrounded, from the late Middle Ages on, by a similarly abiding though progressively more substantial domain, that of the Pochin family of Barkby Hall.
In 1447 Richard Pochin would marry local heiress Alice Willoughby. Seventeen generations on they remain in place having thenceforth ‘increasingly accumulated a large estate in the village’ and beyond. Running north-to-south and separating the two halves of Barkby village, the Hall’s ‘parkland (r) and agricultural setting have remained fairly unaltered for two centuries’ [Barkby Conservation Appraisal, 2011]. Which, unsurprisingly, is how the locals like it – hence, in recent times, scenes like this:
For since 2008 the residents of Barkby and the hamlet of Barkby Thorpe just to the south have been coming to terms with the prospect of ‘the biggest single housing development in the whole of Leicestershire’. Bringing the edge of the city ever closer, the North East of Leicester Sustainable Urban Extension (r) is a ‘£445 million scheme covering 800 acres [which] will see 4,500 new houses being built on what is currently farmland over the next fifteen years’.
The land in question is 90% owned by the Pochin Estate who have entered into partnership with a company called CEG. “We’re not just property developers, we’re place makers,” they declare, the first ‘place’ here seeming likely to be the 575 houses of ‘Melton Brook’ beginning sometime next year. “We are working with the landowner on a really high standard of architecture,” a CEG spokesman told the local press in March, an image of the Duchy of Cornwall’s Poundbury development in Dorset featuring at the back of this promotional literature.
A clue to the architectural leanings of landowner John Pochin (above) can perhaps be found in the perceptible alterations he has made to his own house, Barkby Hall (courtesy of aerial photography since ‘the Hall and parkland are almost invisible from the rest of the village’).
As we shall see, a fair measure of conservatism and sober restraint appear to be the Pochin Hall-marks not just of the present generation but down the ages, evidenced by this description from 1790:
‘Mr William Pochin lives in a plain dwelling environed by high walls and shaded by some lofty elms. There are no pictures to attract within this quakerly retreat nor any scenery without which deserves particular notice. All is like the worthy owner, plain and destitute of ostentation.’
The hall at this time was a C16 century house on its last legs, its ‘worthy owner’ being the MP for Leicestershire, founder of the still-thriving Pochin School in Barkby and a significant expander of the family estates. ‘Destitute of ostentation’ he may have been but William Pochin was also to remain destitute of a spouse, his eventual heir being a relative, Charles Pochin. The latter’s succession ended a 300-year father-to-son descent of the Barkby estate…
… a sequence which had first been imperiled by the simultaneous deaths from smallpox of the first wife and young son of Thomas Pochin, William’s father, in 1726. (The pair were buried together in St. Mary’s church behind the Hall, left, wherein a great many Pochins past are informatively memorialised.) Thomas’s second wife was a Trollope…
… Lincolnshire heiress Mary of that ilk, and they would go on to produce two sons and a daughter. But all three were to die childless, George and the aforesaid William within months of each other in 1798, and sister Mary who would have life use of the Barkby estates until her decease six years later.
So all now passed to their uncle’s great-grandson, Charles Pochin, who, not long after being elected to Parliament as MP for Enniskillen in 1807, decided that Barkby Hall should be rebuilt. But £30,000 failed to buy his new abode a better press than its predecessor: ‘Barkby Hall is a large, plain, unadorned gentleman’s house, the situation of which has no particular beauties in scenery to recommend it’.
The Regency interior has been similarly characterised save for its main staircase, an elevating presence in every sense: ‘In the style of Wyatt and on a particularly grand scale, a main flight rises from the centre of the hall, divides and returns, stone treads and ornate metal trellis balustrading toplit beneath a domed ceiling.’
At the turn of this century, the present owner’s wish to enhance the Hall’s main front met little resistance from heritage bodies: ‘It would be difficult to raise any strong objections to the proposals as they do improve the visual appearance of what are rather bland facades.’ Stucco-relieving rustication now flanks the existing balustraded entrance which itself gained emphasis with a stonework portico.
That Barkby’s previously severe appearance had not been addressed by earlier generations might perhaps be explained by the fact that since 1762 the family had had the option of a second (somewhat more characterful) house elsewhere in the county. Edmondthorpe Hall, the favoured abode of William Pochin (d. 1901) through the latter half of the C19, burnt down in 1942 whilst under military occupation. Its plan, however, is still clearly evident (r) and land thereabouts remains part of the Pochin Estate.
In 1855 William Pochin’s youngest brother, Ralph, married Anna Winstanley and would adopt her family name seven years later when she inherited the Braunstone Hall estate on the opposite side of Leicester. This house is still there today (just) and its park is still a park. But they are an oasis in a suburban landscape, the entire 1000-acre Winstanley estate having been compulsorily purchased in 1925 by Leicester Corporation to meet the pressing need for housing in the area.
Fast-forward to 2016: ‘Landed gentry hold key to thousands of affordable homes,’ ran the headlines at the beginning of this year. With Phase I of a proposed 4,500 houses now an imminent reality, no one can say that the Pochins of Barkby Hall are not doing their bit…
Plumptre, G. Scenes from the summerhouse [Barkby Hall gardens], Country Life, 2 Aug 1990.
Shipley, P. The Leicestershire gentry: its social & cultural networks 1790-1875, 2010.